How Aunt Vi on ‘Queen Sugar’ gave me hope as a Black woman living with lupus

A chance meeting with Tina Lifford and Ava DuVernay changed my outlook on a health diagnosis.

A chance meeting with actress Tina Lifford (right) in a scene with Dawn Lyen Gardner helped one writer change her outlook on being diagnosis with lupus. (Photo Credit: Skip Bolen / 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved)

Queen Sugar‘s Aunt Vi gave me hope at a time when I needed it the most.

At the end of 2017, I found myself in a battle with lupus, a chronic illness I’d been diagnosed with one year earlier, which rocked me to my core.

Like many other young Black women who are diagnosed with the autoimmune condition, I was surprised, fearful and working overtime to prove to myself that I was unphased.

READ MORE: Michael B. Jordan and celeb pals throws lupus fundraiser to spread awareness

They call lupus a “cruel mystery” because while survivors may look perfectly fine on the outside, inside the immune system is attacking itself and their organs.  It can feel like having the flu or achy joints 24-7. It can interrupt your breathing or cause rashes to appear on perfectly beautiful brown skin. It can make you tired and drain your excitement for life, mentally, physically, and emotionally. Everyone suffers differently, which is why no one person, whether you have lupus or not, can dictate the pain you’re in or the depth of your struggle.

When I saw that the character of Aunt Vi (played by the phenomenal actress Tina Lifford) had been diagnosed with lupus on Ava DuVernay‘s hit show, suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore. I’d been keeping my diagnosis a secret outside of my inner circle, but the weight of wearing the mask of perfect health was becoming too much to bear.

READ MORE: Bianca Lawson talks ‘Queen Sugar’: ‘I hope the Darlas of the world feel less alone’

In true form, the universe is always just right on time because not long after that episode, I received an invitation to attend a special taping of a Queen Sugar post-season special in Hollywood. OWN invited myself and a small trio of journalists to a private after-party where I would get to meet none other than the two women behind this storyline, DuVernay and Lifford.

With my heart quickly beating, I approached DuVernay as soon as there was the slightest of pauses in the buzzing crowd surrounding her. It allowed me the short opening I needed just to say hello.

“Ava, I know you don’t know me but I want to thank you for writing a storyline that includes a character with lupus,” I remember saying, trying to gather the courage to keep going.

“I was recently diagnosed with lupus and it means so much to me.”

DuVernay, who has since revealed publicly that she has been in remission from lupus for the last 20 years, told me words I have continued to cherish for months and encouraged me to connect with Lifford.

When I walked up to Lifford, I thanked her for playing a character who had the courage and willingness to fight this disease, whether it be motivated by the love of her man or the success of her pie business.

READ MORE: Ava DuVernay selected to co-chair Prada advisory board on diversity and inclusion

Lifford looked at me lovingly as I told her my story and then hugged me tight like I was her own. She told me that since developing that storyline, she has spoken to many women who bravely face the condition on the daily.

“Contact me the next time you’re in L.A. and we will talk more,” she said, extending her contact information.

My heart swelled with emotion, happiness, and even relief.

It was a true demonstration of the power of Black women directors, storytellers and actresses coming together to authentically represent us– and not reduce us to two-dimensional caricatures.

Yes, we are indeed strong Black women, but we are also complex human beings who wrestle with doubt and anxiety.

Yes, we battle chronic illnesses and diseases, but we also deserve to be desired, loved and wanted by the romantic partners in our lives.

Yes, we can diligently work to reclaim our health, but we can also handle our professional responsibilities, whether we are entrepreneurs or award-winning filmmakers.

Lifford has always been an advocate for what she calls “inner fitness,” a wellness philosophy that encourages people to care for their internal and external health.

In a recent phone interview with me, she talked about the message of hope she wants to give to anyone who lives with lupus, but particularly Black women who are disproportionately affected:

“So much of our pain is in how we hold a thing,” Lifford said. “Meaning, our beliefs around a thing. I would ask anyone to challenge the beliefs that you’re holding around whatever it is you’re going through.”

“Let’s make sure that [whether] we’re talking about lupus or we’re talking about using your job or the divorce… we’re not talking about the ruining of the rest of your life. Just because you have lupus does not mean that you can’t go off and write, direct, and deliver a piece like ‘When They See Us,'” Lifford continued.

WATCH: Three courageous Black women candidly share what life is like with lupus

“Don’t think that your dreams are tied to your disease. When we empower ourselves, meaning we take charge of how we think and how we dare to think in spite of old conditioning, then we can take charge of our experience and it can be greater than we can even imagine.”

Whether you’re facing lupus or something else is testing your faith, hold your struggle with hope as a core belief. Just like when I met her in person, Tina Lifford’s words over the phone, were an affirmation to me to never surrender life’s many peaks because of one major valley.

Since our meeting, I’ve shared my lupus journey nationally and internationally, letting go of the burden of silence. With each new episode of “Queen Sugar,” I see Aunt Vi living victoriously and it shows me and others, that we can do the same.

Read the full interview with Tina Lifford here.

Natasha S. Alford is Deputy Editor of theGrio, a digital host and advocate for health and wellness. Follow her at @natashasalford on Instagram and Twitter under the hashtag #ThePeoplesJournalist to get the latest in news and entertainment.